Tunes for a Monday Morning
Tunes for a Monday Morning

Writers and islands


Having lost my heart to the Hebridean islands off Scotland's west coast, I'm fascinated by the archipelago's natural and cultural history. If you are too, I recommend David Brown's essay "Orwell's Last Neighborhood": a discussion of George Orwell's time on the remote island of Jura, where he wrote his most famous book. "The conventional wisdom," says Brown, "is that Orwell’s years on Jura killed him, nearly robbing the world of 1984. None of his biographers or friends seemed to consider that Jura, despite or because of its harshness, might have extended his life and given him the psychic space to imagine a place utterly unlike it."

I also recommend "Island Mentality" by Madeleine Bunting, a short piece on Orwell and other writers drawn to the Hebrides -- along with her book-length survey of the islands: Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey.

And finally, I recommend three good novels set in the Hebrides: Anna Mazzola's darkly folkloric The Story Keeper, Sarah Moss' darkly comic Night Waking, and Andrew Miller's gripping early-19th-century saga Now We Shall Be Entirely Free.

What are some of your favorite novels set on islands, real or imaginary? Mine include Margot Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island (a selkie novel), Elizabeth Knox's Billie's Kiss, Frances Hardinge's The Lie Tree, and the Earthsea books of Ursula K. Le Guin.

Isle of Skyle

Hebridean fiction


Gosh another though provoking post.islands are fascinating could it be that they are like wombs and the is amniotic fluid.

Sea is correction to my reply

It's funny, I just gave an interview on the topic of literary islands! Some of my favourites from books I read when I was growing up are the island in The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, Prince Edward Island in Anne of Green Gables and all the islands the Famous Five explored, as well as Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island. I set my fifth novel on an island, inspired by Mount Athos in Greece and the monastic community there, but inverted reality: in my novel Maresi the island is home to a female Abbey and no men may set foot on the island. It is sacred ground, holy to the Maiden, Mother and Crone.

Islands are interesting settings for writers I think because because of the contained space which can be both haven and prison, safety and isolation. Life on an island can be very independent of the mainland, independent of conventions and of others. At the same time island-dwellers have to depend much more on themselves and their competence, which I find interesting. And humans have always been fascinated by the collision of the elements.

Is your interview about literary islands available online, Maria?

Not yet, it's for a magazine and I don't know what their online presence is like. But even if it is available later it will be in Swedish :-)

Avalon Lost

That sword,
that damned sword
and the hand that thrust it
up through the grey-green water.
That wrist ringed with hope.
Those fingers clutching
the pommel of life.
Those nails on the fingers
digging deep into history.
That world changed
from the moment of cleft.
Steel tempered by the lake's
cold salivation.
Waves parting,
tsunami starting,
from one damned sword.

And all Avalon lost.

©2019 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Myths for my tale bone

I reach deep for the myths that feed my tale bone.
The goddess was no more than a girl
When she began her crossing.
Foreign to the Island
She had with her
Two tools: a magic cape and her powerful chanting.

I am a migrant
A traveling ancestor
growing old on other islands.
The tools I carry? safety pins and my propensity to dive
Even when 'punch drunk.'
(c) Yvonne Mokihana Calizar

When I was new to the Island in the Salish Sea my Ancestor, my Mother, dropped a safety pin on the floor to seed a story, a personal myth, that might save my life and grow new connections.

When the Elementals, the gods of these foreign islands wet me with their damp and threatened my lungs with their molds?

The common and long diving Goddess who connects me with her passage, her rituals, her chanting fed me Island Medicine. I wrote and memorialized her in a story common as a pin.

My ancestor reminds me, "Ritual has always traveled!"

Those Old Companions

Those old companions on the road,
Ritual and Story, arm in arm,
making mouth magic as they go.
Each tree, each following bird
is a murmur, a murder,
a chant or a chase.
Each bear a mother in fur,
a great being who carries
the world on her back.
Each shamrock and mushroom,
umbrella and house,
bringing magic to the careful
and woe to the unwary.
The old ones warned us
in story,chant, and song.
We neglect their advice
being adolescents on a long road.
If we make it to the end,
we will add our tales to theirs.
Some day someone might actually listen.

--for Mokihana

©J2019 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

I used to live in an area of Leicester called Frog Island. An interesting name as any frog with even the vaguest notion of personal safety wouldn't risk setting a webbed toe anywhere near the place. A huge road runs through the centre of it, derelict factories line part of its route and until recently it had an establishment that was euphemistically referred to as a 'gentleman's retreat'(!)Even so, I was brought up there and spent a good part of my young adult life writing under the auspices of its Deus Loci.

But why was the area dubbed an island even though it lies in a land-locked city miles from the sea? Well the answer is simple; it was and still is a river island surrounded by different branches of the river Soar (a Celtic name meaning bright and clear running, I believe).

But as is often the case in the fair city of Leicester, it has a fascinating history. In medieval times Frog Island was a leper colony and a nearby church still has a 'leper window' a small grilled hole cut into its wall which allowed people suffering with the disease to see the service without mingling with the congregation. Also, in the seventeenth century King Charles I rode over its two bridges into the centre of the city after his troops had captured the place during the civil war. And it was his response to an officer's warning that his soldiers were ill-treating the defeated defenders - 'I do not care if they treat them ill for they are mine enemy' - which prompted the parliamentarin commander, General Fairfax, to chase the withdrawing Royalists and defeat them at the battle of Naseby.

So did Frog Island influence me as a writer? I've no idea, but it remains a strange place to this day; no amount of urbanisation and subsequent dereliction could change its character it seems, so perhaps it seeped into the bones of my imagination and prompted my love of history and spirit of place.

Many thanks Jane! Yes, it's so much about the long story, long. I appreciate your gift this morning and wrap it 'round me ... a magic cape. Nice to know you listen.
Mahalo piha.

Anybody else a fan of Wayne Johnston's novels set in Newfoundland? Lots about islands and writers in those. And mythic and humorous and historical...all the good things.

Orkney by Amy Sackville, A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside, and The House at the Edge of the World by Julia Rochester...which might not be set on an island. I can't remember. For anyone who hasn't seen it, Song of the Sea is a wonderful animated film about a selkie, an island, and a lighthouse.

'Song of the Sea' is great, but for me nothing can touch 'The Secret of Roan Inish'. It was the first thing I showed my daughter on a screen!

The Secret of Roan Inish ...the film is one of my favorite comfort films,too! The music fills in where the scenes and voices leave space. Lovely island senses, thanks for reminding me, j reed!

Lovely, Jane. Just lovely.

"Ritual has always traveled" -- what a good thing to remember! Thank for this poem and rememberance, Mokihana.

The perfect response, as always, dear Jane.

I don't know those! I'll add them to my Reading List.

The Guardian just published an interesting article on contemporary life on Great Britian's remote islands:

The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn is my favorite novel of Scotland and the sea. I discovered it 30 years ago and have read it many times since. One of my sweetest memories of working with Ursula on the Earthsea books was recommending this one to her and how much she loved it after reading the book.

I was on a Newfoundland kick because my partner was there on Fogo Island doing an artist in residence thingy, so discovered Johnston's books and also Michael Crummey's 'Galore', another ordinary-magic-realism kind of story based around the family of a man discovered alive in the belly of a whale. Fogo Island, by the way, sounds like an amazing place for a writer's retreat. Here's their link:

Thank you Terri, for your blog. I found it just exactly when I needed encouragement to re-open some old creative portals. May you always walk in beauty.

Hi Jane

I agree with Terri, this is extremely lovely and so beautifully crafted. That sword had such promise, such idealism and once given to the hand of human sovereignty, everything changed. The storms came with the floods and that world of beauty and magic was lost.

Really loved how you handled this content, everything flows so perfectly in this poem

Thank you for sharing,
take care

Beautiful Mokihanna!

I love the way you connect the goddess

"She had with her
Two tools: a magic cape and her powerful chanting."

with the personal tools and potential you carry

"I am a migrant
A traveling ancestor
growing old on other islands.
The tools I carry? safety pins and my propensity to dive"

The goddess had her magic cape to conceal or shelter things, her chanting to invoke or soothe ( heal)

and you had a safety pin to bind and hold things together, from cloth perhaps to personal goals/dreams. And yes, that all important "propensity to dive". We need that courage to explore, the enter a new situation and swim into it, through it.

Thank you for this,
Take care

Hi Jane

What a powerful and beautifully poem echoing the importance of "story and ritual.

"Those old companions on the road,
Ritual and Story, arm in arm,
making mouth magic as they go."

We need these things to thrive and foster the potential of our imagination, the magic of our inner selves to believe what can be possible and what has proven to be possible in the past. As always, your work is always so wonderfully crafted, rich with image and wisdom.

Thank you for this,
much enjoyed!

Thanks both Terri and Wendy. I read it at Minicon today and folks seem to like it a lot.


Thank you Terri, the line comes from a friend of my son who teaches Hawaiian dance in traditional ways in Paris. Her Ph. D includes a piece that explores what happens when ritual travels in our mobile today.

Thank you Wendy! You are so keen to pick out meaningful threads.

I am across the pond, from the island of Montreal, in Quebec, Canada and my favourite writer from this city is Heather O'Neill. Gritty and vulnerable, with a touch of magical realism (especially with cats) she brings it all together in The Girl who was Saturday Night and Lullabies for Little Criminals. I go back to those books over and over again.

I was born out on those Hebridean Islands (my parents lived on Harris for part of the 70s), and though I’ve spent most of my life in Canada I still love the beautiful wildness of them - and of islands in general. You’ve given me a reading list for the next few weeks, and new music, too. Thank you.

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